DONETSK, Ukraine: Activists chanting “Donetsk is a Russian city!” broke through police lines yesterday and stormed the region’s administration building as a wave of violent protests gripped the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine.
The clashes and similar rallies in heavily Russified cities such as Lugansk and Kharkiv provided another poignant reminder to the untested pro-Western leaders in Kiev of the monumental task facing them following their February 22 overthrow of an unpopular Kremlin-backed regime.
The unrest comes with Ukraine’s borders surrounded by Russian troops who had earlier seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and the economy in tatters after decades of mismanagement and government theft.
Several eastern regions now want to stage independence referendums when Ukraine holds snap presidential polls on May 25 that feature two frontrunners who both want to tie the vast country’s future to Europe and break its historic dependence on Russia.
The day’s most violent protest saw about 50 activists move away from a crowd of 2,000 rallying on the main city square of Donetsk to storm and occupy the government seat where they raised the Russian flag.
They then threw firecrackers at about 200 police surrounding the building. Security officers — dressed in riot gear and brandishing metal shields — pulled a water canon up to the 11-storey building but did not use force against the activists.
The protesters ripped away several of the police officers’ shields and some were seen pelting them with Russian flag poles that had been waved by many at the protests. Some in the bustling city of one million chanted “Give us a referendum” and “Nato go home”.
Police in the eastern city of Lugansk were forced to fire tear gas at a few hundred protesters who tried to storm the local security service building in order to win the release of 15 pro-Russian activists arrested earlier in the week.
The region’s security service had accused the group of planning to seize the main administration building on Thursday with “the use of arms and explosives”.
Witnesses saw several men break down the door of the security service building while others pelted its windows with stones and eggs. The tensions prompted the region’s governor to rush to the scene for negotiations and try to talk those who managed to enter the building to give themselves up to police.
Several more peaceful protests, assembling about 2,000 people, were also held in the eastern city of Kharkiv. But witnesses saw several hundred protesters surround a group of 15 ultra-nationalist Right Sector group members and force them to march down a steep hill on their knees in what appeared to be a humiliation ritual that drew no police response.
The unrest and threat of bloodshed has sparked concern in both Kiev and Western countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin may order his troops into the eastern regions following his promise to “protect” his compatriots there.
Washington believes that Russia has massed about 40,000 soldiers near the eastern border of Ukraine. Moscow has denied plans to move its troops beyond Crimea but has thus far pulled only a few hundred troops back from the border region.
Kiev and western regions of Ukraine that have historic ties to nations such as Poland and overwhelmingly support the old government’s ouster have recently been free of protests but also remain tense. A prominent Right Sector leader was killed in a police shootout in western Ukraine late last month while another member of the group was arrested after wounding three when he opened fire near a central Kiev hotel last week.
The far right Svoboda party said that the body of one its more prominent activists had been found Saturday dumped in the woods with signs of torture a day after his abduction in the central village of Vygrayev.
Prosecutors said they had launched an investigation but provided no other details. Svoboda is the current parliament’s fourth-largest faction and is headed by the billionaire Sergiy Tigipko — a veteran politician who is known for making disparaging remarks about Jews and is also standing for president in next month’s elections.